Editor's note: This post contains spoilers for Season 5 of Cobra Kai.
Season 5 of Cobra Kai had the strong feel of a series finale (despite rumors to the contrary). All of the central conflicts that drove the show reached a satisfying conclusion: Daniel versus Johnny, Miguel versus Robby, Samantha versus Tory.
Yet, none of these conflicts were resolved in the manner typical of the Karate Kid franchise. Each of the Karate Kid movies ends with a climactic match between Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and the villain, in which Daniel wins and the villain is never heard from again. (In The Karate Kid Part III, vengeful sensei John Kreese does return, but to train a new student to fight Daniel.)
Cobra Kai challenges this premise from its very beginning by making Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), Daniel’s first vanquished foe, the co-lead of the series. In addition, though each season of Cobra Kai also ends with either a karate tournament or a large-scale melee between the warring Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do dojos, none of these battles resolve any of the conflicts. In many cases, they serve only to perpetuate them.
Seasons 1 and 4 both end with Cobra Kai winning the All Valley Tournament, but in neither case does this end any conflicts. Cobra Kai’s first victory leads Daniel to officially create Miyagi-Do to better combat Cobra Kai’s growing success. Cobra Kai’s second victory leads Daniel to switch to a more covert strategy in taking down the rival dojo. In neither case does victory in the ring translate to victory beyond.
Seasons 2 and 3 are even more instructive. Season 2’s finale concludes with a schoolwide brawl between the rival karate students, which ends with Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) temporarily paralyzed after Robby (Tanner Buchanan) kicks him over a balcony. This is all the more tragic, as Miguel was seeking to turn away from Cobra Kai’s no-mercy mentality, only for him to be attacked by Robby, who ignores Miyagi-Do’s defense-only philosophy. Season 3 ends with a similar melee at the Russo home, resulting in less tragic results, but still no final resolution.
Season 5’s finale includes similar fight set pieces. Daniel’s enemies-turned-allies—Johnny, Chozen (Yuji Okamoto, from Part II), and Mike (Sean Kanan, from Part III)—all drunkenly agree to attack the home of Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), the main villain of Season 5. Later, Daniel battles Silver in a final karate match, with Daniel breaking out his classic crane kick to defeat Silver.
These scenes all make for great action, as has been the case throughout the series. Season 2’s school-wide brawl was especially impressive, as it was all captured via an epic tracking shot. Yet, it is telling that the most enduring image from that battle is none of the fighting, but rather Miguel falling helplessly from the balcony, his back smacking against the banister below. For all the amazing choreography and nostalgic callbacks, none of these fights resolve anything.
Rarely does victory in the ring translate to victory beyond.
Indeed, all the significant conflict resolutions occur outside the arena. The conciliation (rather than reconciliation, since there was no initial good relationship to restore) between Daniel and Johnny has arguably been the driving force of the entire series. The two came close several times throughout the series, particularly when they attempted to combine their dojos. But each time, unhealed wounds and unchecked pride prevented them from fully resolving their conflict.
Their moment of final conciliation in Season 5 comes not from an epic battle, but rather a seemingly small moment of maturity from Johnny. Daniel is distraught after his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggler) leaves him due to her own exhaustion over Daniel’s unending conflicts with previous foes. Nevertheless, Daniel is convinced that he must defeat Silver in order to get his family back. He therefore storms to Johnny’s apartment, reeking of booze, and angrily demands Johnny help him defeat Silver. When Johnny refuses, saying he needs to focus on his home life, Daniel calls him an unrepeatable slur and challenges him to fight. Johnny slowly approaches Daniel; just when it appears another fight is on, Johnny simply says, “What is going on with you, man?” This unexpected act of sympathetic rebuke disarms Daniel, allowing the men to simply sit down and talk.
This feels like a small moment. Yet, it is when Johnny shows that he has finally put the pain and pride of the past behind him. Moreover, Johnny’s sympathetic rebuke reveals to Daniel his own skewed priorities. This creates the space for mutual vulnerability and a quiet, yet heartfelt, reflection over their own rivalry. This does not end with tears or a big hug, but it does signal the final resolution of a decades-long feud.
This episode also involves Johnny trying to mend Miguel and Robby’s relationship. Johnny instructs the two to fight it out, in hopes they will find resolution through exhaustion. Instead, the fight dangerously escalates; once again the two find themselves sparring near a balcony railing. And once again, their fight ends with Miguel showing mercy rather than delivering the final knockout blow. This time, though, Robby relents as well. When he asks Miguel why he held back, Miguel says that he learned karate to “be badass and find balance,” not to hurt people. Miguel then asks Robby why, the last time they fought, Robby didn’t hold back. Robby admits he became overwhelmed by anger and attacked without considering the consequences. He then apologizes to Miguel for causing the worst moment of his life.
This scene further demonstrates how meaningful conciliation takes place. It must begin with abdicating the right of retaliation. While the righteous law of Leviticus—demanding an “eye for eye, tooth for a tooth”—may establish justice, it does not establish love. God commands us to trust him with our vengeance, so that we can fully obey his command to love our enemies. Doing so may leave us vulnerable, but it is the necessary first step towards conciliation.
John Paul Lederach, a Mennonite scholar and practitioner on peacemaking, describes in The Moral Imagination a longstanding cycle of violence between two Ghanaian tribes, the Muslim Dagombas and the Christian Konkombas. Lederach tells of how African mediators in 1995 brought the two tribes together to resolve their differences. The Dagomba high chief, dressed in full regalia, began by disparaging the Konkombas as lacking a chief themselves and simply being young boys unworthy to negotiate with a chief like him. The mediators became dispirited, believing all chance at peace was lost. However, the young Konkomba spokesperson addressed the Dagomba chief as “father” and deplored the violence that the Konkombas had committed. He then declared, “You are a great chief. But what is left to us? Do we have no other means but this violence . . . to be respected and to establish our own chief who could indeed speak with you, rather than having a young boy do it on our behalf?” The Dagomba chief, stunned by the young man’s humility, took a long minute of silence and then responded, “I had come to put your people in your place. But now I feel only shame. Though I insulted your people, you still called me father. It is you who speaks with wisdom, and me who has not seen the truth. . . . I beg you, my son, to forgive me.”
Lederarch acknowledges that it was “by no means the end of problems or disagreements,” but it was the critical first step in establishing peace between former enemies. It came not with a mighty blow or even thunderous oration, but with humility and contrition. As King David declared, “a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
At the end of Cobra Kai Season 5, not everyone has become close friends, with all wounds healed. If there is a Season 6, we will likely see that old wounds don’t heal easily, as we saw with Johnny and Daniel. Real conciliation requires putting in the work. But it begins when we lay down our arms and our pride and humbly commit ourselves to peace.